I read somewhere (I can’t remember where) a comparison of the Old Believers to Jews, for being an economically successful religious minority also drawn toward rebellion against what they saw as an oppressive regime. It seemed an odd comparison to me since Jews are Yuri Slezkine’s modernists par excellence (with the most religiously traditional sects exhibiting the previously mentioned traits to the least extent) while the Old Believers are defined by their opposition to the replacement of old rituals and among some sects even reject the shaving of beards. In that religious sense they are a bit reminescent of the Amish, who are famously pacifist/quietist and reject materialism for community. Flash forward to today when after listening to “Standing on the shoulders of freaks” I decided to investigate that rumor about Catherine the Great on wikipedia but wound up reading about Pugachev’s Rebellion instead. Their participation in that isn’t even mentioned in the article about the fallout of the Raskol. In school I had only heard about them meekly being burned at the stake while holding up two fingers.
The reasons for the schism seem rather ridiculous to us (by which I mean Protestants) today. Three-fingers or two, what difference does it make? The Old Believer-sympathetic writers of their wiki article points out how much more seriously people took rituals back then, which were supposed to be divine. That does sound similar to the attitude described as the pre-reform Germanic custom in Harold Berman’s “Law & Revolution”, and not being subject to the Pope one wouldn’t be surprised to see that tradition stronger in Russia. A while back when discussing the Puritans of England, Michael said the dispute was political rather than theological. I said that what we may regard as “theologically insignificant”, people at that time did not. The Old Believers may count as further evidence for me, but some of them also rejected priestly authority or set up their own alternative hierarchy (though their explicit reasons for this were like those of the Donatists).
UPDATE: Daniel Larison comments “It is fair to say that Old Believers became hostile to absolute monarchy under the Romanovs when Tsar Alexis supported their condemnation, but it would be misleading to say that the Schism was driven by opposition to absolutism. As I understand it, the Schism had its origins in resistance to Nikonian reform that the tsar supported, and it was only after the council of 1666 that the Old Believers concluded that the tsar had betrayed the faith. That is, their hostility to Tsar Alexis was based in their objection to the religious reform he was imposing. It was not a reaction against absolutism, except insofar as absolutism facilitated their persecution. From the original Old Believer perspective, there would have been nothing wrong with absolute monarchy, as long as the king was Orthodox (which for them would have meant a tsar in opposition to the Nikonian reform).”